Team of sea kayakers on Aleutian Islands expedition

Aleutian Islands Expedition

by Stan Chladek

Expedition Members: Brian Day & Stan Chladek 

  • Kayaks: Nordkapp Jubilee 3 piece sectional by Valley Canoe Products
  • Paddles: Lendal crank shafts
  • Dry Suits: Kokatat GoreTex
  • Tents: Bibler/Black Diamond

The Aleutian Islands are a remote archipelago stretching in a great arc from southwest Alaska to Siberia. Located at the collision of the relatively warm Northern Pacific Ocean and the frigid Bering Sea, the island’s bad weather is legendary, with frequent fog, gale force winds, and rain. Thus the islands have been called the "Birthplace of Winds" or the "Cradle of Storms". The islands were the home of the Aleutians, perhaps the most accomplished ancient native kayakers. These hunters of the stormy seas had to be expert kayakers in order to survive in the vicious seas and render their livelihood from them. Their hunting machines, the baidarkas, along with West Greenland kayaks, were the most advanced and efficient water crafts used by natives. The baidarkas were used for fishing and hunting various sea mammals including, incredibly, whales. Early Russian observers - because it was the Russians who in the 18 and 19th century colonized the islands - remarked on the extreme seaworthiness and efficiency of the baidarkas as well as on the high skills of the Aleutian kayakers. The Russians virtually enslaved the Aleuts and forced them to hunt sea otters from the baidarkas, whose pelts they traded with the Chinese. This wholesale slaughter of sea otters in the 19th century led to a virtual extinction of this animal along the northwest coast of America. The Aleuts suffered an even worst fate at the hands of the Russians and through the infectious diseases such as small pox introduced by whites. The last straw for these people was a forcible relocation during World War II by the US government when the Islands were attacked by the Japanese. So today, only a small remainder of the once proud natives remain on the islands which are part of Alaska.

 Last year in July at the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium I met with my old friend George Dyson, an expert on Aleutian kayaks and the author of the widely read book Baidarka. As I was talking to George over a few beers about our last kayak expeditions to Antarctica and Easter Island, George interrupted me and urged me, saying, "Stan you should go to the Aleutian Islands and try to kayak there." We talked more about the history, baidarkas, smoking volcanoes, storms and in a few minutes I was hooked. Well, in a few days time, an e-mail message from George's friend in Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island arrived, offering help in organizing the expedition and soon the die were rolling. So, in early July this year my partner Brian Day and myself found ourselves in Dutch Harbor on the eastern end of Unalaska Island, ready to take off for a 3-4 week long trip along the coast of Unalaska Island, one of the biggest islands of the chain. The plan was to paddle the approximately 200 miles of the Bering Sea coast (north) of Unalaska. Alternatively, time permitting, we would circumnavigate the Island. The second alternative would add some 40 miles to the trip. We expected the weather to be very unpredictable, so we had to be quite flexible and adjust our plan to conditions as they develop. We flew in with a commercial airline from Anchorage carrying our three piece sectional kayaks as excess baggage with all our gear and food packed inside the boats.

The Russian heritage is quite visible on Aleutian islands; most of the geographical names are either Russian or native. This includes the names of former Aleutian villages, which are all abandoned save the twin cities Unalaska/Dutch Harbor. Unalaska has a beautiful orthodox church of the Holy Ascension of Christ with onion domes, as well as an old burial ground with orthodox crosses. There are an incredible number of bald eagles in the town. They often sit on lamp posts and roofs of  buildings; one eagle family even built their nest on a construction crane - hopefully one which is not being used. We visited the Museum of the Aleutians, filed necessary papers with the native Unalaska Corporation, and packed one month’s worth of  food and gear into our kayaks. We took all standard gear plus emergency equipment. We both had tow lines and we carried a GPS and a short wave radio. We did not expect the radio to be very useful, since most of the time we would be out of range of any broadcast. We were able to obtain the weather forecast twice during the trip from passing boats. Thus our most important emergency gadget was an EPIRB, which could broadcast an emergency signal via satellite.

The next morning we took off under cloudy skies with a quartering wind. For a few hours the paddling was rather uneventful, except for meeting a few sea lions and bald eagles. The sky was gradually clearing and with improved visibility a beautiful view toward the east opened, featuring the smoking Acutan Volcano on the next island. After a brief lunch of a couple of granola bars on a rocky beach next to a large river which was coming down to sea with large rapids, the weather started to change rather rapidly.

A good day paddling in the Aleutian Islands

We were going to learn why the Aleutian Islands deserve their reputation. The gale struck from the northeast, and immediately the surface of the sea was blown off. The mist was flying over the water and as the wind changed direction from the northwest, our progress became quite slow. The wind intensified and a sheet of mist enveloped us. As the sun was shining brightly, I observed a new phenomenon: a rainbow just on the water’s surface. After a few minutes of desperate struggle with not much progress,  I signaled to Brian to turn downwind and in a moment we were flying with the wind along the shore. The shoreline was formed by huge boulders, thus there was not a place to land for a while. After some quick maneuvers between rocks we found a small cranny between the boulders and pushed through the kelp to the relative safety of a steep rocky beach.

As we landed, it was difficult to stand up in the wind. So we pulled our kayaks up over the slimy rocks, hid among the big boulders,  and watched with concern a waterfall high on the cliff which was being blown toward the sky. We were now only about a mile from Cape Cheerful and there was presumably a decent beach behind it. We hoped that it would offer a good shelter. The rocky beach where we were waiting out the storm offered no respite from the gale and it would be a terrible campsite. Around 7pm, after some 5 hours of waiting (luckily with plenty of daylight left) the wind seemed to drop somehow. With some trepidation we seal-launched into the nasty surf from the big rocks. The heavy boats rumbled down over the rocks into the seething surf and off we went. Soon, it became apparent that the wind was still quite strong and our upwind paddling was quite laborious. Nevertheless, paddling over large swells, we rounded a corner and threaded between sea stacks as we noticed a steep mountain valley on our left - Dry Dock. In fact it was shaped exactly as its namesake. In a moment we realized that a katabatic cross-wind of incredible force was coming down from the valley and snow covered mountains above, blowing perpendicular to the storm path. We braced on our paddles through the worst gusts and were able to get into the shelter of the high cliffs and slowly continued into the wind to round the Cape. As we plowed through large breaking waves, it become almost impossible to progress toward the rock garden on the south side of Reese Bay. So the only option left for us was to turn back and attempt to land in the middle of a wind tunnel in Dry Dock. If paddling into wind was difficult and slow, paddling downwind was quick, but quite rough. Soon we were hit by a gale force wind coming from Dry Dock. Although we were quite close to the shore, it was very difficult to land. With astonishment we watched walls of mist moving over the sea surface at lighting speed and then forming water spouts of conical shapes when the katabatic wind converged with the storm path. The spouts looked like ghostly apparitions moving over the water. These were the famous Aleutian williwaws. After a few tense minutes we finally landed on a steep rocky terrace and rushed to build the tent in the partial shelter of a high grassy bank. We anchored the tent to some big rocks and tied the kayaks down as well. It was quite a noisy night, with tent zipper tabs rattling like jingle bells in the wind and a sea mist flying into the tent through the zippers.

Foggy paddling in Alaska

 This was certainly an inauspicious beginning and a good introduction to Aleutian weather. It took another day before the storm spent itself and we could continue further west. The scenery - or whatever we could see of it through the dense fog which enveloped us for most of the day - was magnificent. Snowy volcanoes reaching to the sky from steep grassy slopes, high cliffs carved into fantastic arches and grottoes, and rocky promontories seething with surf.

The dark volcanic cliffs were adorned with countless silver plumes of waterfalls. We had to paddle into the strong wind and made only 9 miles before another storm broke and forced us to land in Driftwood Bay through large dumping surf. A large river was emptying into the bay near the only possible landing place, so river rapids in conjunction with surf created quite a complex wave pattern. We were able to hide our camp from the stiff wind in the five foot high grass near the river, which winds its way through the broad grassy mountain valley. It was amazing how close the snow-covered mountains are to the sea. This valley is the best approach for climbing Makushin Volcano, which with its 6,680 feet is highest among the countless Unalaska  mountains. Due the severe Aleutian weather, the climbing of this peak takes on the Himalayan conditions. It is remarkable that the areas around Makushin Volcano and the Shaller Mountains further southwest are the only areas in the U.S. which are not mapped - they are depicted as white spots on the maps.

Glacial Valley in the Aleutian Islands

On our fourth day on the sea we passed the rocky promontory of Bishop Point which was a rookery of Steller sea lions. There were probably some hundred of these large beasts lounging on the rocks trying to scare us off by emitting threatening noises. Later the same day, we went through the nasty landing at the black sand beach near Cape Kavrishka; I was maytagged but was able to side surf to the beach, while Brian looped the kayak and had to roll it. Once on the beach, during a short breach in the clouds we glimpsed the incredible sheer wall of Table Mountain rising more 1,000 feet above the south end of the beach. The next day we met a group of "dancing" sea lions, who provided us with quite a spectacular show just in front of our kayaks. Later that day, finally having decent weather, we paddled into quiet Makushin Bay with a fantastic view of snowy volcanoes. We glided along the rocky pinnacles and grottoes and met a profusion of seals, sea lions and puffins. The large sea lions were the most impressive. Huge bulls with black manes were surrounded by harems of many cows. As we approached, they warned us with a horrendous roaring. It was quite a spectacle to see the whole herd stampeding into the water from the rocks. We even saw a few sea otters in kelp beds, but always in the distance, which made it next to impossible to photograph them. That night we camped on a beach  which was near an ancient Aleutian village, originally protected by massive earthworks, still visible on the neighboring hillside.

Alaskan Sea Lions

The good tidings did not last very long. The next day we were hit by yet another storm, which forced us again to turn back and seek shelter in a partly protected bay where we spent another ugly wet night on slimy rocks. A few days later, after paddling out Kashega Bay, another site of an ancient Aleutian village, we arrived at the rocky headland called Sedanka Point. Next to it lies little Split Rock Island, so named according to its prominent rock formation. We arrived at low tide at kelp-covered tidal pools which were the home of hundred of seals. The western cliffs of this small off-shore island were riddled with shallow caves and niches. Many Aleutian mummies were recovered from these caves some 70 years ago. Evidently, this offshore island must have been a burial place for the hunters from nearby Kashega Village; the mummies were placed so that they could overlook the sea and the ghosts of the deceased could go hunting at night. Whale hunters would often come to the mummy caves and pray to the dead hunters for  success with the next whale hunt. The whale hunting tradition and the complex rituals involving mummies of dead hunters died with the coming of the Russians in the middle of 18th century.

We crossed several large bays and after some 8 miles arrived at a prominent headland, Cape Aspid. Then the gale struck again. By that time we had already stopped counting how many gales hit us. After a short paddle we spotted a small opening in the cliffs and landed on a partially protected rocky beach among the large boulders. It was a barren place with no protection from the wind. It was also obvious that this little bay could be a trap at high tide; it would be impossible to leave through rock studded dumping surf.

Offshore Winds in the Aleutian Islands

After some agonizing, we pulled seal suits over our dry suits, donned pogies and shivering from exposure on the beach started to paddle toward Chernofski Harbor, some 6 miles distant. The thought of Chernofski Ranch, the only island of civilization on the western part of Unalaska Island, inspired us while we cranked into the wind. Drenched by rain, and paddling in zero visibility through the dense fog, we finally arrived at the mouth of harbor and slogged the last mile or two towards the ranch. We landed on a sheltered beach and slowly walked toward the ranch building.

We knocked on the door and entered a warm and dry room and heard the voice: "Please come in and help yourself with soup and moose meat!"  It was voice of Art Christensen, who runs the sheep ranch in this remote corner of the Island. His voice seemed to be coming from heaven.

Please come in and help yourself with soup and moose meat!

Art has been living alone at the ranch for years. His only companions are twelve horses, a dog and four hundred sheep. He gets his mail infrequently when the sea plane happens to fly nearby. He does not go to town often either. His only connection with the outside world is a short wave radio. He can call Fort Glenn on the neighboring Umnak Island, where a seasonal crew is doing a cleanup of a former World War II military base. When the crew leaves in September, he has no more connection with outside world for the whole long winter. Chernofski was also a site of a large Aleutian village, from which just a few depressions remain in the ground. The village was abandoned prior to World War II due to an outbreak of small pox. During the war, when the Japanese attacked the western Aleutian islands, this was the site of a sizable military establishment, which was vacated after the war. Today only a few rusting huts remain and Art is the only inhabitant of Unalaska Island west of Dutch Harbor. Art's hospitality and generosity allowed us to stay at his ranch through one more day as we took needed rest and dried our gear. A day later we launched again heading west. Since we were running out of time, our intention was to paddle west into the Umnak Pass, separating Unalaska from Umnak Island and visit the site of the ancient Aleutian village at Konets Head. Then we would turn back and retrace our route along the Bering Sea coast of Unalaska Island. We had no more time to attempt to paddle along the longer Pacific Coast. Umnak Pass is known for strong tides and races, which are sometimes felt even close to Chernofski Harbor. Thus we timed our departure from the Harbor to arrive at the north end of Umnak Pass at the tail end of the ebb, to hit Konets Head at the slack. As things happened, just after we rounded West Point outside of Chernofski Harbor we were met by a stiff southwestern wind which slowed our progress from four knots to about two knots. Since we were about to miss the tide and, moreover, the gale seemed imminent, we decided to turn back to Chernofski Harbor. With regret I cast a last sight into the Umnak Pass with dark silhouette of Ship Rock Island looming ominously under the indigo sky. We both knew that turning back now meant going back to Dutch Harbor, since we would have no more time for another attempt to negotiate Umnak Pass. With a strong wind at our backs we were able to return quickly. We were lucky, indeed. A vicious gale struck from the southwest, roaring like a freight train through the barren mountain passes, with flying mist and hard rain shortly after we landed. The normally tranquil harbor turned into a mess: a fishing boat which we saw from the distance sought shelter from gale and was moving into the harbor dragging anchor with its ghostly light shining through the darkness. We slept in Art's bunkhouse, which rattled in the wind the whole night, as sheets of rain pelted the window panes.

Finally the gale spent itself after some 20 hours and we were able to hike across to the beach on the other site of West Point. Hiking was easy over the treeless grassy hills, covered by a profusion of wildflowers. West Point is a rocky headland with several caves next to the beach. Some of these caves were used by the Aleuts as burial caves; we noticed a few human bones still remaining in the crevices. Art later told us that some 20 years ago, he saw human skeletons in the caves covered by whale bones. Evidently, mummification between Aleuts was reserved but for a few, mostly notably for successful whale hunters. The mode of burial for ordinary people was inhumation.

The next day was calm and found us heading back toward Dutch Harbor. We were able to cover a long stretch of the coast all the way to the mouth of Pumicestone Bay, to a beautiful gently sloping black sand beach with nice surf for a good landing. At the mouth of the river there were sulfurous vents, uncovered at low tide. During a brief period of sunshine there was a beautiful view of the snow-capped mountains.

Later the next day we attempted to land in a small partly protected bay near Cape Starchikof. The dumping surf seemed to be small with a shore break very close to a steep rocky beach. I watched for a set of small waves and tried to ride up on the beach. I was swept back to the surf two times and the third time I judged that I rode high enough to jump out of my kayak. Perhaps, I was a bit too slow to exit the boat, my knees hurt from sitting in a boat for a long time. As I took off the sprayskirt and stepped out of the cockpit, a large set arrived and hammered me on the rocks, dumping my kayak, incidentally full of water, on my back. In the next moment I found myself in the water, holding onto my boat and paddle. I quickly made it to the shore and found out that the same thing happened to Brian as well - how stupid we were that we both attempted to land at the same time! Before we could  change our wet clothing, the sun disappeared and the gale was here again. We hurriedly built the tent and tied it to our kayaks and were able escaped the downpour and wind.

The next day started nice and sunny, but we were caught in another storm doing the seven mile crossing of Makushin Bay. It took lot of effort to stay on course and prevent ourselves from being blown off to the great emptiness of the Bering Sea. In the evening we  camped in Volcano Bay on a black sand beach and watched seals with silvery salmon in their mouths as they emerged from the surf. A fox came to the camp, perhaps lured by the smell of the last sausage which Brian kindly offered to  me, knowing my passion for cholesterol rich food. The fox was quite disappointed about not getting even a morsel and paid us back by peeing on our dishes.

Food for the Gods

By that time we were only some 40 miles from Dutch Harbor. The gale died out by the next morning and we quickly covered some 15 miles mostly in dense fog, often slogging through thick kelp. Once we rounded the prominent headland of Point Kadin, a wind made war on us, suddenly as always. Fortunately, it was a following wind, as most storms do come from the west (yes, this is from Siberia, thus we called them KGB storms). This section of the coast between Point Kadin and Point Kariga is dotted with small rocky islets and sea stacks. They did break the swells, but also helped to create a profusion of steep short waves, which were reflecting and refracting from all directions. While the waves were not particularly high, the seas were extremely confused and paddling required all the skills we could muster. The kayaks were pitching almost vertically and shooting through narrow rocky passes, so we could scarcely pay attention to the herds of sea lions sitting on the rocks and roaring at us. It was blowing and raining, as we negotiated this 2-3 mile long  Stack  Alley. We rounded a small island at Point Kariga and were able to hide on its back  side. We were now at the place where the old Aleutian village once stood, which we visited on our west  bound leg of the journey. There was a small beach with dumping surf, studded with rocks. In search of a better place, we paddled some three miles downwind, only to discover that what we thought to be a decent beach was just a steep boulder terrace with bad, bad surf. Thus, there was no landing there. So, to our chagrin we had to turn back and tackle the strong wind for some 3 miles back to the village site. No wonder the wind had sapped almost all our remaining strength. It was for the fourth time on this trip when we had to turn back. In all my previous sea kayaking career spanning more than 15 years, I turned back only once, in the face of impeding storm near Arran Islands in Ireland some 6 years ago.

The next day dawned on us with a strong wind, bad dumping surf over the rocks, and intermittent rain. We counted 10 fronts coming through in one day, as we were waiting on the beach eating cold oat meal and freeze dried food as rain was running down our necks. Quite depressing; we were only 24 miles from our goal, and were not sure when we could paddle again. Does the weather ever get any better? The next morning we took a gamble: we started in hard rain and strong wind, but through smaller surf, hoping that the weather would not get any worse. We had a quite distance to go to any potential landings as most of the shore was high cliff. We were wrong again, the weather did not get any better, in fact, it got only worse. Fortunately the Force 5-6 wind blew at our backs and our progress over the large confused waves was rather fast. The most difficult section came between Driftwood Bay and Cape Wislow, the following seas were quite difficult with complex wave patterns. We both took a deep breath of relief after rounding Cape Wislow, we had made it into the quiet waters of Reese Bay with a sandy beach in the front of us. With rain still coming, it dawned on us that we do not want to spend any more time out and decided to keep going all the way to Dutch Harbor, still some 12 miles distant. As we were crossing the mouth of a wide bay over large swells, we both had doubts about the wisdom of our decision. But to our joy, Cape Cheerful lived up to its name: the swells got smaller and rounding this headland turned out to be a piece of cake.

Aleutian Islands

Everything went smoothly, after that even the sun appeared and the wind died down, and we landed in Dutch Harbor by 7pm in great spirits, tired but happy. After a late dinner of pizza and a few beers in the Elbow Bar we slept for 12 hours. The next day, after packing our gear and kayaks, we visited the Museum of the Aleutians and talked again with its director Rock Knecht, himself a kayaker who had given us lot of valuable advice prior to the trip. He said rather laconically, "This was the worst July weather I could remember, I am glad that you made it back!" Well, I guess we did not have great luck with the weather, but we had luck on our side several times. Should we come here again? 

Posted in Adventure, Expeditions, History.